Shropshire Star

Training for battle on West Midlands' 'French' street

Eighty years ago British soldiers were fighting their way through the towns and villages of Normandy in the wake of the D-Day invasion.

Home Guard troops training in a "French" street in the West Midlands in 1942.

But it would all have been familiar territory for some of our local Home Guard officers – thanks to a secret training centre which turned part of a West Midlands town into a realistic French battlefield.

Amid the bombed-out ruins of buildings, an intrepid artist used garish paint and a slice of ingenuity to transform the setting into a replica of a French street with such signs as Hotel de Paris, Galleries Montmartre, Cafe de la Paix, Coiffeur, Mons Laval, and so on.

There was even a Gestapo headquarters alongside the Poste displaying a proclamation which, in German, said the "dirty swines" of France must work.

To add to the realism there were gramophone records played of the sounds of machine-guns and rifle fire, bursting bombs and dive-bombing.

This artificial bit of France in the West Midlands was intended to teach the Home Guard all there was to know about street fighting. It had been established to train Home Guard officers and NCOs.

The creation of an elaborate French setting is however a bit of a puzzle considering, as the name suggests, the Home Guard did not, and was never intended to, fight in France.

A Star "special correspondent" paid a visit in the late summer of 1942 and due to wartime censorship the exact location was not revealed in the subsequent write-up, so to pinpoint it we can only hope there is a reader with some local knowledge, or somebody can piece together the clues carried in the article.

The headquarters of the training school, it said, were in a former Sunday School adjoining a blitzed church, and the street running alongside the church, where all the buildings were in ruins because of German air raids on this West Midlands town, had been transformed.

Army officers or instructors gave the training and, wearing rubber pumps, the Home Guard men were taught to steal silently and swiftly onto the enemy, overcoming every kind of obstacle in the way.

Our correspondent told of seeing a squad of eight scale a 12ft high wall and get in position on the other side in 34 seconds, and they speedily acquired the art of climbing up the sides of houses into upstairs rooms.

Troops scale a wall to gain access to a house.

The Home Guard soldiers learned how to make the best use of cover, how to traverse ground rapidly without giving away their position, and other valuable insights into house to house and street to street fighting.

Instruction was sometimes given by one-act plays in which the whole exercise was illustrated.

There was also an exhibition room, which was a kind of museum of armaments for the Home Guard.

"A model town, covering a fair amount of floor space, enables the men to follow step-by-step an imaginary advance upon the enemy."

Our correspondent saw the result of the training, watching a battlecraft exercise in which the soldiers put into practice all they had been taught. Lord Bridgeman, Director-General of the Home Guard, and other staff officers witnessed it too.

"With great efficiency they made their way over walls, into buildings, through a concentration of tear gas, and finally through a smoke-filled courtyard strewn with booby traps and snares," wrote our correspondent.

Those who had received the training would return to their own units to pass on what they had learned.

This little corner of France in the West Midlands must have had a relatively short life, as the Home Guard was stood down in December 1944. As for Lord Bridgeman, he went on to become a long-serving Lord Lieutenant of Shropshire.

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